Joi Ito was about as odd and quirky a choice for director of the MIT Media Lab as imaginable. He had no college degree, yet held a professor’s rank at the Institute and was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School. His background was like a shotgun blast, with buckshot spread everywhere. And yet, he was director of MIT’s flagship program in innovation.
Then came Jeffrey Epstein, who turned out to be a significant donor to the program, even as no one is entirely clear where Epstein’s money came from. But Ito knew one place it might go, and that was his lab and his personal enterprises. Part of the job is to get donations, and Epstein was one of Ito’s “go-to” guys. Was it wrong to take his money?
I’m writing about Ito, not because I think he ever participated in the heinous acts Epstein was accused of, but because his willful ignorance of Epstein’s record contributed to the harm of the victims. A well-written New Yorker article by Amy Davidson Sorkin details how much of Epstein’s power lay in his powerful network of men, many of whom were in academia. Another article, by Philip Weiss in 2007, says that when asked about his child prostitution charges, Epstein responded, “Have you managed to talk to many of my friends? … Do you understand what an extraordinary group of people they are, what they have accomplished in their fields?”
There was a long hiatus between Epstein’s 2008 conviction in Florida and his returning to the radar in 2019, culminating in his suicide while charges pended in the Southern District of New York. Notwithstanding the way he’s seen today, his name wasn’t a big deal for a decade for most of us, and he still had money to give. And he gave. Was Ito wrong to take it?
It’s not that anyone suggests that Ito had any personal involvement in anything Epstein did to any woman, but that by taking Epstein’s money, he validated Epstein as a philanthropist, and laundered Epstein’s conduct through MIT’s credibility and virtue.
MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, recently released an apology for the Institution’s ties to Epstein. I’m happy that the Institution acknowledges its role in the scandal. However, I find it ironic that the Institution took money that hurt these women, and their response is to throw money back. Money to non-profits is useful, but what will truly make change is a change of leadership and a strict precedent set for this to never happen again. Taking money from Epstein once is a mistake. Taking it over many years is not.
In retrospect, Epstein’s money was too dirty to take for some, including Reif. But did money “hurt these women”? Or is it that Epstein’s taint, now that it’s on everyone’s radar and despite the fact that there has never been a trial to test what, if anything, happened, is absolute in the minds of the truest believers?
There will not be a criminal trial now that Epstein is dead, and so there will never be an opportunity to fully vet the accusations. Nobody much seems to notice or care about this, and it is taken for granted that Epstein, even in death, remains radioactive, and Ito’s proximity to Epstein and his money made him glow.
But then, Ronan Farrow added another, different, piece to the puzzle, that Ito not only sought, and took, Epstein’s money, but deliberately covered up the donations by having them marked as “anonymous.” If true, it shows consciousness of guilt. Ito thereupon resigned, not for taking Epstein’s dirty money but for concealing and lying about his taking it. That was entirely Ito’s choice.
If the allegations contained in Farrow’s article are true, and he provides evidence to back it up, then the damning of Ito’s motives come not from the moment’s outrage about Epstein, but from his own recognition that he was taking money from someone too tainted to admit it.
They also show that Ito and other lab employees took numerous steps to keep Epstein’s name from being associated with the donations he made or solicited.
So it wasn’t just revisionist hysteria that made earlier donations “dirty,” but that Ito covered up the donations at the time, believing they had at least the potential to taint the Media Lab. He took the money. He concealed it. For that, if true, he is responsible.
But Epstein as donor is too laden with emotional outrage to serve as a test of dirty donors. Ironically, there is another, who was similarly the target of outrage until his offensiveness was pushed to the back burner by the Epstein scandal.
After multibillionaire and MIT Corporation lifetime member David H. Koch ’62 passed away last week, media outlets exploded with reports on this passing of the 11th richest person in the world, who according to Forbes had a net worth of $50.5 billion in March 2019. Many of these accounts emphasized the numerous contributions Koch made to different causes which, according to the Koch Family Foundations website, amount to $1.2 billion dollars. MIT News quoted Robert Millard, chair of the MIT Corporation, who stated, “David Koch was a model philanthropist who funded initiatives across a swath of cultural, scientific, and medical institutions.”
No woman ever alleged David Koch did anything untoward. He was neither convicted, nor charged, with any crime. Unlike Epstein, he was a graduate of the Institute, and donated a not insubstantial sum. Yet, his money, too, was tainted, until the taint paled in the shadow of Epstein.
In addition, a model philanthropist would want to ensure all of their actions support a better world. For example, the benefit of funding a cancer research institute, like Koch did at MIT, might be offset by sitting on the board of the Cato Institute, which Koch also did, as it advocated for weakening regulations of airborne particulate matter, which the World Health Organization estimates causes 29 percent of lung cancer deaths worldwide. Despite his intentions of helping understand and cure cancer, his other actions may have inadvertently created more of it. A more effective donor would be willing to change their job, investments, and lifestyle to better align with the initiatives that they support.
What level of purity, whether from crime or merely a disagreeable political agenda, makes for an acceptable donor? How pristine must a person be to the woke for his money, given for good causes, not to be deemed too dirty to take?